China cracks down on AIDS groups ahead of Olympics

BEIJING — Wary of exposing China's flaws to the news media's glare before next year's Olympic Games, authorities are cracking down on groups that help AIDS victims and orphans, shuttering their offices and banning meetings and other gatherings.

In one case, an activist in Henan province, where the nation's AIDS crisis hit early, said police ordered him out of his office on Thursday and suggested that he flee the area for his own safety. Six other volunteers in the group were detained.

"They said our organization was illegal and our activities were illegal," said Zhu Zhaowu of the China Orchid AIDS Project's office in Kaifeng in central Henan province.

Police in the same city barred a conference for AIDS activists that had been scheduled for Aug. 19-20 by another nonprofit group known as Grassroots.

Police pulled the plug earlier this month on two other AIDS conferences in the southern city of Guangzhou — one that was to bring legal scholars from three continents and another at Sun Yatsen University.

The repression perplexes foreign experts seeking to help China grapple with the rising challenges of combating HIV infection.

"Nothing about it makes any sense," said Meg Davis, director of Asia Catalyst, a New York-based group and co-sponsor of the canceled Guangzhou legal conference.

"China is at a crossroads both in terms of its fight against AIDS and its very new and fragile civil society," Davis said.

Some domestic activists said China's leaders are clamping down because they worry that international media attention in the run-up to next summer's Olympic Games will focus on aspects of China that leaders find embarrassing.

"They hope that there will be no unharmonious voices during the Olympics period," said Hu Jia, an activist and co-founder of a nonprofit Beijing AIDS group.

Legal experts said the crackdown could backfire on China's efforts to combat HIV infection.

"If you suppress human rights, what happens is that people vulnerable to HIV are scared to be tested or seek treatment," said Mark Heywood, founder of South Africa's AIDS Law project and chairman of the UNAIDS human rights reference group, a body offering advice on the global epidemic.

Heywood, who was to attend the Aug. 3-4 Guangzhou conference, said China "is getting away with paying lip service to how we should deal with AIDS, but on the ground it is doing something completely different."

China appears to have averted the large-scale AIDS epidemic that has hit Thailand and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Official statistics say the nation of 1.3 billion people has 650,000 people infected with the virus.

The virus has primarily hit drug users, sex workers, ethnic minorities and migrant workers. Henan province in central China became a hotspot in the 1990s when brokers known as "blood heads" paid farmers for blood and plasma, which they sold to unsanitary, often state-run, clinics and hospitals.

A July 24 report on AIDS in China from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C., suggested "that the disease may be moving toward a more generalized epidemic in China," despite official reports that it's under control.

A leading AIDS activist, Li Dan, a former graduate student in astrophysics, said he believes a spate of recent critical reports from global human and civil rights groups hammering China on its poor record — timed to snare headlines to coincide with the yearlong countdown to the Olympics — has provoked the government backlash.

"They are trying to leverage the Olympics as a tool to push the Chinese government," Li said, adding that he hopes foreign groups "back off a little bit" so that repression against weak domestic groups will abate.

(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Hua Ting contributed to this report.)